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Choice for Special-Needs Students

If parental choice is not already a contentious enough issue, it is going to become even more so in states that allow taxpayer money to cover tuition at private and religious schools for special-needs students.  Starting in the fall, for example, Wisconsin will permit this practice, despite it being opposed by all disability advocacy organizations ("Taxpayers Are Funding a Special Needs Vouchers Scam," The Progressive, Jul. 1).

There are two sides to this issue.  No one wants to deny special-needs students the education they deserve.  The question is how to do it fairly.  Contrary to popular opinion, however, the debate is not new ("Special Education: When Should Taxes Pay Private Tuition?" The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2007).  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act permits parents to seek public funding for private schools if they can prove that public schools can't meet their children's needs.

Over the decades, the courts have strengthened that right, but it is not always an easy victory ("Balancing Special-Education Needs With Rising Costs," The New York Times, Jul. 27, 2014).  Even when public schools offer what appears to be a reasonable plan, it may not satisfy parents.  It's then that lawsuits begin. Perhaps the threat of litigation was responsible for Wisconsin's decision.  Yet the state is still not immune from litigation.  Opponents say the program is a scam because public funds can be spent at uncertified private and religious schools.

I've long supported parental choice.  I don't see why it shouldn't apply to special-needs students.  If anything, they are most deserving of all ("School Choice for Special-Needs Students," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9, 2015).  Yet there has to be assurance that the schools parents choose at public expense have the wherewithal to help these students.  Merely claiming they do is not enough.  At a minimum, they need to be certified or else they are taking advantage of the situation that parents find themselves in.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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